Freedom Through Credit Unions
It has been two years since I returned home from working and living in Ghana for the Canadian Co-operative Association but there are some days when the memories are so strong I feel like I stepped off the plane into a hot African September night just yesterday.
Sometimes it is a certain sound or smell that brings me back to a specific moment during my time in Africa, other times, like today, it is a more conscience sort of memory. Today I cannot stop thinking about Salaga, a town in the north of Ghana where I lived for a short time in a small room adjacent to the office of the SEND foundation of West Africa where I worked; on the same compound as Africa's first ever Credit Union.
I now live in Indianapolis, Indiana, a place that, with its ten-lane interstates and coal fire electrical plants is diametrically opposed to the small town of Salaga with is roadways and footpaths or orange dirt. I am walking into the local Credit union here in Indiana to put down my five dollar share capital and apply for a car loan, but my mind is on Africa drum beats and dancing, it always is when I think about Credit Unionism. On October 15th, 2005 the Credit Union Association of Ghana celebrated the 50th anniversary of Credit Unions in Africa and I was there to be a part of the celebration. I had traveled over seven thousand miles from home using planes, boats and busses to get to Salaga but the more remarkable journeys are the ones made by the people who live in the villages surrounding Salaga. People walked for miles in the bare feet to be a part of the celebration, many were women with small children tied to their backs in the customary West-African way who had received small loans as part of the micro credit program organized by SEND Foundation and administered through the local Credit Union.
People gathered early in the day and sat around the town centre, a place that was once know as the Salaga Slave Market but has long since been reclaimed by the local chiefs and is often the site of community events. We sat in plastic chairs outside under small canopy tents to shield us form the penetrating African sun. As the town Chief arrived the drums began to beat and people started to dance and sing. The chief was paraded around as he brushed peoples shoulders with a ceremonial brush made of horsehair and people stuffed small denominations of money into his purse to thank him for his presence. When the crowd quieted down there was a prayer given by the local Catholic Priest, credit unionism in West Africa is deeply rooted in the Catholic Church as it was the church that funded the development of the first Credit Unions. After the prayer and a few speeches by local dignitaries and Credit Union leaders were finished the real celebration really started. People started to eat guinea fowl and rice, the Star beer and orange Fanta started to flow, along with local beverages like Pito and palm wine. The drums once again started beating and people started to dance; the people were truly happy to be there and made no attempt to hide their pride in being a part of the local credit union.
As the evening drew on I found myself speaking to the local priest over a warm glass of beer, he had helped organize the event and was a very important and active member in the Salaga Member's Credit Union, he was obviously happy with the turnout and organization of the anniversary celebration. He asked me about celebrations of Credit Unions in Canada and a felt rather silly as I described the rigid nature of a typical Annual General Meeting of a Canadian Credit Union. He began to speak of freedom as the root of the day's festivities, how the micro credit loans given through the Credit Union had given the people of this community a sense of personal financial freedom that they would never have known otherwise. It was so fitting that this celebration of freedom would take place here in Salaga, where the slave trade in West Africa had been so firmly rooted in past years. Into the early morning hours as I left the party and headed to bed people continued to dance and sing in clothes made of blue fabric with the Credit Union Association of Ghana logo on them, fabric that could be seen being worn by people all over the Northern region of Ghana.
Although I am far removed from that place and time now I still feel connected to the same spirit of community and freedom as I join a credit union here in Indiana. The effect are not as dramatic here, the positive effect that this credit union will have on the big-city community will likely not be celebrated as enthusiastically as the effects of the Salaga Member's Credit Union but that does not make them any less important or less freeing.